Today I Saw a Ghost at a Funeral

I was sitting by myself in the lonely and cold room of the funeral home staring at my friend’s body surrounded by flowers. He looked good as corpses go, decked out in a fine suit with an Art Deco pin on the lapel. He had on a lot of make up, but then again, most do. The casket was glistening steel in a muted silver and they hadn’t bothered to drape the underside, so the criss-cross bars that supported him were exposed. There were a smattering of funeral floral arrangements, all beautiful and one just as fragrant as the next. There were two screens on the wall above him, playing a woman speaking and singing incessantly as the tape rolled over and over. She had a great voice, but it was a short video and the volume was too low to be heard in the back, where I finally moved to after an hour and a half of waiting for the service to begin. More people made their way in and as the waiting time became closer to two hours, some began to leave. The older age of those gathered made no argument for the rest of us to get back to the day at hand. As I looked around, I noticed a friend and he came and sat and said hello. He was shaking, sweating and smelled of tobacco. I saw that he came in earlier and left with two other guys and was just returning. As he started to speak, his voice was shaky and he was unable to speak in a clear sentence-as if his speech was forced, muted and choppy. His eyes were so dark and his hands were trembling. All he could muster was “I’m socially inept at the moment”. I asked why and he said he was just having trouble. Fresh out of rehab and back in town, he was contacting old customers like myself as he was starting a new job this evening. My body language must have said it all, if only he were sober enough to have read it. In his twenties with so much talent and a bright future ahead of him, he was making ill use of his idle hands and wide open schedule. He managed to awkwardly apply his black cloth face mask, half exposing his mouth and beard. After about 15 minutes, his body began twitching uncontrollably as he was either going into withdrawal or suffering from chorea. I weighed out my options of either giving him my business card which listed my specialty in counseling or just asking him about his sobriety. I did neither. After all, I am not his counselor and I have no business asking him about his choices. On the other hand, I do care that a young guy that I care about is absolutely not ok. It reminded me of some terrible choices that I made at his age. I remember that horrible feeling of not being able to speak when spoken to and wanting to sink into the floor. Today, I saw a ghost.

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How do we mourn…let me count the ways.

It’s the thought that counts

First, it is important to distinguish between grief and mourning. Grief is the profound roller coaster of emotions that we feel after a loss. Mourning is how we express those feelings in order to honor those who we have lost. Depending on our culture, we may dress in black, cover all the mirrors in our home and/or not attend to superficial tasks for seven days. Sitting Shiva as it is called, provides a specific time for spiritual and emotional healing when mourners join together usually at home to honor the dead. After seven days, it is then acceptable to get on with “the business of living”. In some Christian cultures, wakes are held and can last for days. The body may be brought into the home for viewing and people gather to memorialize their loved one prior to buriel. In some cases, this is done in a funeral home or chapel and the family will gather there. In cases of green buriels, the body may be shrouded and placed outside, surrounded by the beauty of nature and wildflowers before family and friends gather with shovels to help with interment.

And even with all of the choices we have available to us, sometimes family members are rendered speechless as they are met with only an empty urn to say goodbye to, having either not been privy to their loved one’s final wishes, or sadder still, their loved one’s spouse who vindictively and intentionally withholds information-and the body’s whereabouts- from the rest of the family. Using this type of malicious, passive-aggressive behavior can be psychologically damaging and is morally reprehensible, but legal.

It happens more than people realize.

Then, there are those who do not consider the possible harm that shocking others with their final wishes may have. Take for instance a young mother who died by an overdose when she was nine months pregnant. The family had many choices in how to honor her and her child. They chose to embalm them both and placed the child in her outstretched arms as if she were about to gently toss him up in the air on a fun-filled day at the park. He was dressed like a toddler-not a newborn, complete with tennis shoes, tiny jeans and a plaid shirt. She was adorned in a cheerful dress, sunglasses and sandals laying on a red and white checkered tablecloth on top of faux grass with a picnic basket full of flowers nearby. There was no casket. The family explained that this was their vision of how she and her baby would enjoy the afterlife together.

Hence, in death, as in life, there are many ways to honor and memorialize our loved ones. If we fail to make these choices for ourselves, rest assured that someone else will have the final say in how we will be remembered. It is never too late to write down your final wishes and let someone know where to find this information-with the full knowledge that these wishes can and will change over time. As always, the best place to begin is with the end in mind.

Real tombstones. Courtesy Pinterest.

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